My own awakening to the toxicity of the achievement race came the way it does to many parents: via years of trying to keep up with it.
I sensed the problem in my home before I could name it. My daughters, Shelby and Jamey, were in middle school, and Zakary was in third grade. They were still children, in the essential sense of the word. They still played hide-and-seek, treasured their American Girl dolls, and relied on me to make their meals. But their lives had mutated into an adult-like state of busyness that gave our home the air of a corporate command center.
Twelve-year-old Jamey, for instance—who still wore braces and fit into children’s clothing sizes—would wake up before seven, cram in some extra studying over breakfast, and rush off to her school day, which lasted the usual seven hours. She’d go straight from there to a violin lesson or soccer practice, return home at six, and commence a daily homework marathon that took her well into the night. I’d see her hunched at her desk past eleven p.m., washed in the yellow lamplight, her long brown hair spilling over her books.
The next day, she’d get up and do it again. Now multiply that madness by three.
In earlier years, my husband, Doug, and the kids and I had spent weekends together, relaxing in the park, exploring museums, and playing games. We whiled away long hours reading books. I watched Shelby become a budding writer, Jamey fall in love with animals, and Zak develop into a garrulous drummer and athlete who could chat amiably with strangers. On weeknights we almost always ate dinner together as a family.
Slowly, though, I began to notice that our lives were less and less our own. During the week, the children would appear for dinner and then disappear into hours of assignments. Sometimes after a night’s worth of homework, our dining table would be piled so high with books and papers that it looked like the conference table at a law firm. On weekends, if the children weren’t practicing piano scales or traveling to soccer matches, they were often studying. They rarely simply went out to play with kids in the neighborhood; everyone else was enslaved to a schedule, too. I could scarcely remember the last time I’d seen my kids play, tinker, daydream, relax, invent a game, write or read for pleasure, or do anything that wasn’t assigned to them by someone. They were so busy being little professionals that they had almost no time just to be children. Likewise, Doug and I were left with no time just to be the parents we wanted to be. We were too busy being chauffeurs, homework wardens, and musical taskmasters.
Worse, I began to see the constant demands taking a toll on my children’s health. Jamey started complaining about headaches, stomachaches, and sleepiness, which she attributed to the pressures of school. Though she was just twelve, Jamey sometimes went to bed later than I did. Zak, only eight years old, also started getting headaches, from worry about all the work he had to do.
Believe me, I wanted my children to shine. I wanted them to earn good grades, cultivate their interests, and build the skills to succeed in high school, college, and life beyond. But as my once-curious girls withdrew from our family life and became worker bees, producing formulaic essays and correct answers and formidable extracurricular résumés, and as my once-buoyant boy cried in frustration over his hundredth set of math problems, I started to wonder whether the relentless pressure to perform was doing more harm than good.
So many parents have told me that the madness snuck up on them the same way. You want your children to learn deeply, so you push them to study. You want to give them opportunities to develop their interests—perhaps better opportunities than you had as a child—so you enroll them in whatever sports and art lessons you can afford. You think you’re doing the right thing. And then, before you realize it, your life feels like it’s spun out of control.
The rat race for our family began in kindergarten. The four of us (Zak wasn’t born yet) bundled into the car one morning and set off to Shelby’s kindergarten talent show, for which she had nervously decided to recite a poem. Puzzlingly, the expectations around the show seemed high. Were five-year-olds these days supposed to have finely honed specialties? Apparently so: the revue included impressive gymnastics routines and piano recitals, plus one particularly dazzling violin number, all executed deftly by tiny performers. Jamey, age three, immediately asked Doug and me if she could take violin lessons. Wonderful, we thought: music is educational! We said yes.
And we kept saying yes for many years thereafter. Both girls signed up for music lessons and soccer. When Shelby was in fourth grade and struggling with math, I learned that most of her classmates were taking after-school tutorials at the private Kumon learning center, so popular that it serves students in nearly fifty countries. Instead of wondering why a fourth grade math class was too hard for fourth graders, I enrolled her at Kumon, hoping to boost her confidence. Her siblings followed.
The kids’ rigorous schedules also extended into our home as their homework loads grew heavier (and their enthusiasm for learning weaker) year by year. But the work seemed important. I understood it to be my duty as a mom to oversee my children’s assignments and monitor their grades. I expected straight As, even made flash cards and marked up school papers with red ink. When I felt I couldn’t help, I enlisted the support of teachers and tutors. I wanted to instill in my children perseverance and a drive for excellence because I believed those skills would carry them through life’s challenges. I hoped they’d have better opportunities than the modest ones I had as a child. This, it seemed, was what devoted parents do.
“Children and families do not exist in a vacuum,” Arizona State University psychologist Suniya Luthar would later tell me. “We exist in communities. Children exist in schools. There is a school culture, a community culture, in which there is this reverberating message: More is always better. Do more. Accomplish more. Achieve more. The schools and communities in turn exist in American culture, which again espouses the same message, the American dream. The more you can do, the better off you are. In fact, if you don’t do more, you’re going to be left behind.”
I should have recognized the signs of overwork sooner, given my own history. My mother raised my two younger sisters, my younger brother, and me by herself, after our parents’ divorce, in a small apartment on the outskirts of Miami. Seeing our mom’s financial struggles made me determined to achieve independence. So I waited tables to fund my education at the University of Miami, and went from there to law school and then to Manhattan. Aiming for professional success and financial security, I joined a law firm on Wall Street and started working harder than I ever had before. Sometimes I wouldn’t leave the office for days. Finally, a job move for Doug saved me. I transitioned to consulting, which allowed flexible hours, and we settled in Lafayette, a leafy San Francisco suburb where I imagined a healthier life for my family than the one we’d left behind. Never did I imagine that the frenzy of Wall Street would follow us there.
The upshot was that by the time my daughters entered middle school, our family had become enslaved to achievement. Jamey’s violin studies had ballooned into a four-day-a-week gauntlet of lessons, group practices, and recitals. Her soccer team, which began as a cute exercise for second graders just striving to kick the ball straight, had morphed into a five-day-a-week commitment to practices and treks to tournaments hours from home. Even eight-year-old Zak had started soccer, piano, and Little League. We often ate meals in the car as we zoomed from one practice or recital to another. And always awaiting my kids when we returned was more homework. It seemed that anything a child did—every hobby, every interest, every lesson—had to be done at a near-professional level of commitment. Coaches and instructors expected no less. There was no room to dabble or just explore.
More and more, as I walked up the stairs to check on my children and saw Jamey through the crack in her bedroom door, she looked like my former self—hunched over her desk, joyless.
For my part, I woke up early and stayed up late to get my own work done, finding my days consumed with coordinating children’s activities and studies. The expectations for parents seemed just as impossible as those for kids. How could we possibly manage all this and still have time to mind our own well-being?
“We’re just really busy” was the answer I gave, reflexively, to grocery-aisle inquiries about how we were doing. Were everyone else’s children handling it better? No one ever said otherwise. So we went about our busyness.
The saddest part for me is that we scarcely had to tell our children what “success” should look like. The prescription was plainly written: great grades and test scores, athletic and artistic awards, admission to a prestigious university, and, ultimately, a well-paid job in one of a handful of respected fields. Though I came to see that my husband and I had inadvertently pushed our kids too hard, they also pushed themselves. The extravagant expectations were all around them: In the impressive examples set by their friends. In the standards set by the schools, which increasingly expect all students to read fluently in kindergarten and perform feats of algebra by age thirteen. In the anxious questions overheard from other parents wondering how many AP classes their child should take for college applications. And in the shiny images of affluent lives on TV: the executives and stars in swanky New York apartments and Los Angeles mansions who appear to have reached the pinnacle of achievement.
This was the air we were breathing. And our young children, still searching for their identities, were breathing it, too.
In the spring of 2007, our family went away for Memorial Day weekend on the California coast. Shelby, whose seventh grade final exams were imminent, stayed inside studying the entire weekend. I’d never worked this hard—not in law school, not as an overburdened young associate in my first law job. Neither had Doug, who had survived the rigors of medical school. I thought: This is nuts.
Every parent who arrives at this realization immediately runs into a new set of vexing questions. Do we quit the sports and arts that our children seem to enjoy? Allow them to skip their homework? Abandon the tutoring that seems, at least in part, supportive of their confidence and progress? Pull them out of school? Each of these possibilities seems at first extreme. On top of the practical dilemmas, we confront deeper questions about the culture we are a part of. How in the world did we reach a place where school and enrichment activities, of all things, could literally be making our children sick? And how many other kids are struggling, too?
Searching for answers, I read books and attended lectures by experts in education, pediatrics, and child psychology. I started asking more people about their own experiences. What I found was staggering. The achievement-centered childhood that my kids were living was not a product of our particular family or town. It characterizes the lives of millions of children in diverse communities across the country. Nearly every parent and student I met understood the issue immediately and intimately. Everyone had a story—at least in private. Few parents wanted to publicly say that their children were being pushed beyond their limits. The kids didn’t want to admit it either, having internalized the expectations of easy perfection.
Over the last couple of decades, I discovered, childhood has transformed into a performance. Not limited to the classroom or the ball field or the talent show stage, and knowing no socioeconomic or geographic boundaries, our collective focus on scores and numbers, awards and trophies, is robbing our kids of their childhoods, their health, and their happiness. This early experience with life-as-competition is shaping their nascent identities. Paradoxically, it’s also swindling them out of their inborn enthusiasm for learning, challenge, and growth, thus dimming the brightness of their futures.
The deeper I dug, the more I became convinced: The pressure to perform—and its shadow, the fear of failure—represented a silent epidemic. Our competitive, high-stakes culture was the culprit. Our children were the victims.
At first I assumed that this pressure cooker was a perverse product of privilege, confined to upper-middle-class communities like mine in which success is often narrowly defined by high-status careers and elite college admissions. In some such neighborhoods there were epidemics of stealth tutoring, where every child had a tutor but no one admitted it. Yet I quickly found that students in working-class and impoverished communities suffer, too. In neighborhoods across the socioeconomic spectrum, I discovered that all students suffer in the impersonal contest that education has become, whether it be a race to ace an AP exam or to cover a year’s worth of bloated content.
“I want to get into the best colleges I can,” Isaiah, a high school senior in a low-income neighborhood in Oakland, told me. He was struggling in an AP government class that he took to fatten his transcript, staying up until midnight with the work. What for? He said, “Being an African American and taking AP classes is what people are looking for.”
In many communities, even the nonoverachievers—the majority of kids—are afflicted. Children like my Jamey, a hardworking B student, feel marginalized by their school’s limiting view of success. Meanwhile, all children in a system that mainly values bookwork miss chances to learn and express themselves in multidimensional ways. From the time they are toddlers, it thrills kids to count, sing their ABCs, observe bugs and birds, and build block towers. They have a natural drive to gain skills and achieve mastery, including and perhaps especially in areas where they are not yet proficient. But in too many cases, our impossible expectations for them after toddlerhood—expectations out of sync with their natural development—have made it too fraught or too frightening to continue. As our children get older, our cultural obsession with only one measurable version of intelligence—good grades, awesome test scores—discounts the value of diverse smarts and experimentation, leaving budding young poets, carpenters, and designers who don’t test well to neglect their talents and doubt their self-worth.
Think of what we are losing.
And for what purpose, all this pressure? The presumed holy grail of a K-12 education in the United States is hardly a love for learning or an authentically engaged citizen. It is, against all odds, a “yes” message from one of a handful of expensive, brand-name universities that only a fraction of each year’s three million high school graduates will be invited to attend. (And, it should be said, even that treasured invitation itself comes with no guarantee of lifelong happiness.) Whipped into a panic by hypercompetitive admissions practices and by hype, kids, parents, and educators pursuing that holy grail sacrifice terribly important things: time, money, health, happiness, and childhood itself. Without our even realizing it, our driving goal has become all about preparing for the college application, not preparing for the college experience or life beyond. Performing, not learning. Amassing credentials, not growing. Not even really living.
So, while it’s true that resilient children need to cope with risk and failure as a part of life, we’ve set up their childhoods as a destructive march to likely defeat. “Success” equates to attending the most prestigious college and then netting the big house and the high-paying job. Winning the education race, we’re told, is the way to get there. Rather than building their resilience, such a high-stakes education drives our children to chronic insecurity. Fear. Anxiety. Disconnection. Loneliness. Record rates of depression. And, as they get older, binge drinking, eating disorders, cutting, and even suicide. The clear message they hear from their environments is to produce, produce, produce at all costs, even if it means cheating, taking drugs, or working through the night to keep up.
The most painful irony is how badly out of step our frenzied educational practices are with science. Psychology and neuroscience journals abound with studies about how children learn and thrive, and how their brains grow, and none of it bears a remote resemblance to the spirit-crushing contest we’re putting our kids through.
There’s a “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” aspect to fruitful learning, explains Laurence Steinberg, Temple University neuroscientist and author of the book Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence. In order to develop optimally, the brain needs just the right amount of challenge: enough to stimulate neuronal growth, but not so much as to overwhelm it. Our educational system today tends to “miss the sweet spot,” he says, because “it confuses the quantity of work with the quality of the challenge.”
The result? “Children are born curious, and it’s pretty easy to facilitate that, to groom it,” says Vassar College neuropsychologist Abigail Baird. “We’re doing the opposite. We’re squishing their desire to learn new things. And I think that’s a crisis.”
Two incidents, one small and one large, pushed me over the edge into making my first film. The subtler event was a parent forum I attended at our school on the subject of student stress. As the guidance counselor ticked off symptoms, the parents and teachers in the audience nodded their heads; it all sounded too familiar. They asked what they could do. The unhelpful answer was that overwrought parents had to stop pressuring their kids.
Excerpted from "Beyond Measure: Rescuing an Overscheduled, Overtested, Underestimated Generation" by Vicki Abeles. Published by Simon & Schuster. Copyright 2015 by Vicki Abeles. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.